[WATCH] AUM Zonqor campus only once first phase is completed - Muscat

With just 23 students enrolled, both the Prime Minister and the American University of Malta’s provost John Ryder said they were not concerned by the university’s slow start

John Ryder (inset), Provost of the American University of Malta, insists the university is still committed to the project for the long term
John Ryder (inset), Provost of the American University of Malta, insists the university is still committed to the project for the long term

Joseph Muscat has said that work on the Zonqor campus of the American University of Malta would only start once its Bormla Campus has been filled.

The Prime Minister’s remarks come after questions were raised last week on the university’s viability, after it was reported that it had only succeeded in attracting 23 students, of the roughly 300 it was projecting by this point.

“I am sure the American University of Malta, is and will continue to be, an important project and one we will all be proud of,” Muscat said this morning. He added that like Education Minister Evarist Barolo, he was not concerned by the low numbers which he said would undoubtedly increase.

“We see the project at Zonqor starting only when we are satisfied that the first phase of the project in Cottonera is full," the Prime Minister said.

MaltaToday quoted AUM provost John Ryder on Sunday admitting that the start-up institution had only managed to recruit 23 students in its first academic year, having had to scale down its initial target to attract some 300 students in its first intake.

But despite the “slow” start, Ryder insisted the university was still committed to the project for the long term.

The AUM started academic operations last month at the Cospicua campus, where it occupies a historical building on the water’s edge.

However, the poor intake has raised doubts on the project’s viability, including the need to build the much larger campus at Zonqor Point in Marsascala.

It was in September 2016, just after the university received its operating licence from the education authorities, that Ryder told The Sunday Times of Malta he was expecting 330 students in the first intake.

He now admits the projections were ambitious for a university with no track record.

“We began to scale that back as the year progressed, and in fact the number of faculty we hired was only appropriate for far fewer students than the 300 mentioned,” Ryder told this newspaper.

He said AUM realised it was necessary to “begin small” and develop the reputation to gradually attract students from markets abroad.

“Building a reputation for a new institution takes time, and it is more so for a university, but rest assured that we are committed to this project for the long term, and all the rumours to the contrary are totally unfounded,” Ryder said.

He remained positive the fledgling university would achieve its targets over time.

“I truly cannot understand why the entire focus is on numbers, rather than the quality and content of education delivered… The present count of students stands at 23, but more will be joining in January and still others for the 2018-19 academic year,” he said.

Ryder said university students interviewed by Lovin Malta had a positive outlook on the education they were receiving from AUM. He was referring to a critical report that appeared last week on the apparent lack of progress at the Cospicua campus and the poor student numbers recruited by AUM. Students who spoke to the portal had praised the one-on-one attention they received at AUM.

The university’s Facebook page lists various recruitment drives undertaken abroad, including Egypt, Lithuania and China. Ryder insisted with this newspaper the student numbers will grow.

“If that means that in these initial days we provide more focused and individual attention, so be it. All this can do is improve our reputation out there in terms of personal attention we give to our scholars,” he said.

In the aftermath of various media reports casting a shadow on AUM’s viability, Education Minister Evarist Bartolo told Parliament he preferred “a slow but steady start” to the project. He also told TVM, the State broadcaster, that if it was up to him AUM should only start building the Zonqor campus after fully utilising the Cospicua facility.

No breach of contract

Research undertaken by MaltaToday shows that despite the low intake, the university has not fallen foul of contractual obligations.

AUM was given a two-year cushion by the government when it signed the contract for the transfer of public land in Cospicua and Marsascala to Sadeen, the Jordanian company behind the university.

Signed on 11 March 2016, the contract says AUM will attract “approximately 4,000 students by the fourth year from the date of completion, with an annual intake of approximately 1,000 students”.

The ‘date of completion’ is further defined as two years from the signing of the land transfer deed.

This means that AUM’s obligation to start attracting approximately 1,000 students per year comes into force in March 2018.

However, this date has been pushed forward by a year after the length of time it took the National Commission for Further and Higher Education to award the start-up institution a university licence.

Ryder shunned suggestions AUM was running into financial difficulty as a result of the poor student intake. He said the financial support for and commitment to AUM “remains strong as it always has been and will continue”.

Asked about media reports of lecturers being laid off because of financial difficulty, Ryder insisted that the university had only one lecturer less than when it started operations.

He said there were several vacancies, some of which were a result of “AUM’s actions and some due to employee resignations” but pinned this down to the fact that the organisation was “growing” and “still finding its feet”. He did not elaborate.

AUM is facing legal action by one of its former employees who was dismissed during the probationary period.

“We will not, as a matter of policy, comment on any staff actions, either specific or general but if the real issue is whether the university continues to function and will continue to function at full strength, the clear answer is ‘yes’, because we are replacing all vacant positions and are shortly beginning searches for additional faculty personnel for the next academic year,” Ryder said.